This report describes how community colleges came to be a major resource for the nation’s workforce development system. It discusses the ways this role continues to evolve to meet the needs of students, employers, and local communities. It is based on themes raised in the book, 13 Ideas That Are Transforming the Community College World, published by Rowman & Littlefield and the American Association of Community Colleges in March 2019.

Postsecondary workforce development is one of the major innovations of the modern community college. In a workforce approach, the needs of local industry drive the curriculum, course delivery systems are sufficiently flexible to meet the diverse needs of students and industry, and students experience a mixture of work-based and classroom learning. These features combine to help students succeed at a postsecondary education and gain important training with less than a four-year degree.

This paper describes how community colleges came to be a major resource for the nation’s workforce development requirements and discusses how this role continues to evolve to meet the needs of students, employers, and local communities. Topics covered in the report include collaboration and partnerships between community colleges and businesses and the evolution of community colleges' mission to embrace workforce development. The paper explores credit and non-credit programming, the integration of technology, promotion of dual enrollment and early education (engaging high school students to promote career exploration and preparation), and the expansion of community college degree programs to include four-year programs. The authors also highlight how community colleges are helping workers transition to new careers, expand apprenticeship, and promote guided career pathways.

Major Findings & Recommendations

  • As more jobs require higher skills, the education levels that employers demand will continue to rise. This means that more community college workforce programs must assume that students should be prepared to complete a degree at a four-year institution or complete a community college baccalaureate.
  • Community colleges must diversify their programs and consider innovative and flexible strategies for delivery. Workforce programs must meet the needs of high school students looking for a career, existing workers needing skills to increase their mobility, and dislocated workers looking for a career change. The ability to provide not simply the instruction, but also the support services to make these students successful, thus, becomes an essential goal of the programs.
  • Given a decade or more of funding cuts to community colleges in most states, many community college career and technical programs have not managed to keep up with some of the technical changes in the occupational areas they educate and train students to work in. This is a special concern in health, manufacturing, and business sectors that have integrated information technology.
  • The recent evolution in workforce education is producing a wide variety of activities and initiatives well beyond courses or programs. The workforce mission must be integrated into all the rest of the college.
  • The best opportunity is for community colleges is to concentrate on STEM initiatives, which will provide the basis for workforce programs to link to four-year college programs. Increasingly, job growth is not in areas that call only for some secondary education, but rather in sectors that require a four-year degree.
  • Community colleges must continue to remain responsive to the unfolding needs of their communities for more employees who have four-year degrees and/or possess the appropriate basic skills to obtain these degrees.